On why Referendums aren’t synonymous with Direct Democracy

Written by Yavor Tarinski

A vote, even a free vote, may be only – and often is only – a parody of democracy. Democracy is not the right to vote on secondary issues. Real [democracy] lies in being able to decide for oneself on all essential questions in full knowledge of the relevant facts.

~Cornelius Castoriadis[1]

For years a tool known as referendum, or plebiscite, has been synonymous with direct democracy. This has led to a gross misunderstanding of what the latter really stands for, which in turn has allowed different authoritarian formations to use this term in a symbolic projection of their supposed popularity.

Because of this confusion there are, for example, far-right parties with names such as Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy Party. The only specific, supposedly democratic element in the program of this electoral project, beyond vague words about empowerment of Czech citizens, is the idea of conducting referendums.[2] But beyond that, the overall proposal of this party is focused solely on national parliamentarism, with strong far-right exclusivity.

But the referendum is not only part of the toolbox of modern-day populists. It also has a long and sinister history among authoritarian regimes. According to some researches, one in every four dictators has conducted at least one referendum during his tenure and has won it with overwhelming majority.[3] In the context of authoritarianism, plebiscites are used not as tools of democracy, but as tools for extinguishing the emergence of potential opposition. Furthermore, in a heavily militarized dictatorial context of fear, a referendum comes to project an image of national consensus behind the authoritarian leader.

One characteristic example is the constitutional referendum held on 19 March 1933 in Portugal by the autocratic regime of António de Oliveira Salazar. The new constitution was approved by 99.5% of voters, in a referendum in which abstentions were counted as support votes. This plebiscite was used by Salazar as a means of legalizing the creation of a one-party state.

Another indicative example of this trend is the fascist General Franco, who strengthened his position as the de facto dictator of Spain through a referendum conducted on 6 of July, 1947, which he won with the staggering 95.14%.

Constitutional referendum was also held on 15 of November 1968 by the bloody Greek military junta, through which the army colonels officialized their grip on power. Participation was made obligatory, while abstention was punished with imprisonment. As can be expected, the result was once again overwhelmingly “in favor” of the dictatorial regime – 92,1%. But despite the propaganda and repressions there was still over 22% abstention rate.

The common thread that links contemporary far-right populists with authoritarian regimes of the past is the need of presenting the people as a homogeneous national entity with one common interest, which is realized through a national consensus. The leader and/or the Party is presented as the expresser of this consensus, and tools like the referendum, in a climate of generalized fear and repressions, is used to further project it in a more officialized manner. The confusion between singular participatory tools and direct democracy as a political project is used in this sense as an ideological mantle that covers the hideous face of authoritarianism.

Referendums, in particular, are generally among the least democratic of participatory tools. Murray Bookchin has insisted that the plebiscite process leaves individuals to their own private destiny, thus making them isolated beings whose very freedom is denuded of the living social and political matrix from which his or her individuality acquires its flesh and blood.[4] Such type of “participation from the sofa” renders people dangerously vulnerable to manipulation by powerful leaders or corporations. Thus it is rendered compatible with regimes that essentially keep their subjects completely excluded from public affairs and in a state of ignorance, because of which Rosa Luxemburg has concluded that:

When Napoleon or any other despot of his ilk uses a plebescite […] for the goals of Caesarism, taking advantage of the political ignorance and economic subjection of the masses, we do not hesitate for a moment to come out wholeheartedly against that ‘democracy’.[5]

First of all, we must make it clear that direct democracy has nothing to do with mere procedures inclined at expressing some sort of “national consensus”. On the contrary, it is about what Jacques Ranciere calls dissensus, something that constitutes precisely in the constitution of another form of community based on horizontality and participation. For him the problem of democracy is not so much about the number of people that can agree on the same point as it is about the capacity to invent new forms of collective enactment of the capacity of anybody.[6]

In this sense, direct democracy has to be conceived as a holistic system, rather than a mere procedure. Tools such as the referendum can be embedded into a broader project and culture of self-governance, where a plethora of participatory processes and practices ensure the direct, unmediated involvement of each and every citizen in the management of public affairs at every level. Cornelius Castoriadis suggests that such procedures are themselves pieces of a political educational process, of an active paideia, which aimed at exercising—and, therefore, at developing in all—the corresponding abilities and, thereby, at rendering the postulate of political equality as close to the effective reality of that society as possible.[7] In other words, one such environment serves simultaneously as a school that educates the citizens to be passionate about politics and think critically, thus it helps for the creation of a democratic anthropological type that is indispensable for the functioning of a system based on unmediated popular participation.

No single method or process can ensure this. Conceiving direct democracy as a mere process is actually harmful to real social and individual autonomy as it gives false sense of empowerment where there in reality is none, as we have seen in the examples above.

In short, referendums are not synonymous with direct democracy, but can be part, along with other participatory tools and procedures, of a direct-democratic system. Castoriadis has suggested that one such setting might take the form of a federation between self-governed communities. In the system he describes[8] there are:

  • – local assemblies where citizens directly take decisions
  • – committees of popularly elected and recallable delegates, with only subsidiary powers, that pertain to the execution of popularly-made decisions
  • – federal referendums that are used for the adoption of federal laws

In this way the referendum is used as a tool for direct communication between local self-managed municipalities, reducing the need for intermediary levels, while the implementation of the decisions taken through that process are delegated to the popular committees. This strenghtens the project of direct democracy since it further ensured that at all levels there is the greatest possible popular participation and control in social decision-making.

But referendums can also be useful today, as long as they are initiated from the grassroots and aim at promoting actual citizen empowerment. One such notable example is the 2014 plebiscite organized and conducted independently by a coalition of citizen initiatives and unions on the future of water in the Greek city of Thessaloniki.[9] While local authorities were pushing for its privatization, a grassroots alliance was formed that decided to ask the citizens on what they thought about this. The result was an overwhelming NO to privatization of water. And although the referendum was of non-binding character and was ignored by the authorities, it nonetheless reinvigorated the project of direct democracy in the imaginary of the local population as it was organized horizontally via open assemblies, promoting citizen participation from start to finish.

Much can be done from today, as long as we have genuine self-governance at the scope of our actions. But for this to be the case, we have to be fully aware that the project of direct democracy has to do with the radical and equal dissemination of power and ensuring that no decision is made or implemented without the direct participation and control of the population. Different procedures and tools are important for the institution of one such system, but neither of them is enough on its own. Those who insist otherwise have been either misled or want to conceal their thirst for authority.

[1] David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p55.

[2] https://www.spd.cz/program-vypis/

[3] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/european-political-science-review/article/plebiscites-a-tool-for-dictatorship/90DB6CDACAF06866E6A0FE35958D7EB3#

[4] https://www.social-ecology.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Libertarian-Municipalism-The-New-Municipal-Agenda.pdf

[5] Rosa Luxemburg: Socialism or Barbarism: The Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg (London: Pluto Press, 2010), p138.

[6] https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3395-democracy-equality-emancipation-in-a-changing-world

[7] Cornelius Castoriadis: Rising Tide of Insignificance (anonymous translation, 2003), p.349. [available online: https://www.costis.org/x/castoriadis/Castoriadis-rising_tide.pdf%5D]

[8] Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificancy (anonymous translation, 2017), p147. [available online: https://www.notbored.org/PSRTI.pdf]

[9] https://www.savegreekwater.org/archives/4118

February 24, 2023

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.